There appeared to be a Transformer djing when we entered the Grog Shop. He was getting all kinds of love from the little girls and bearded dudes pressed against the knee-high stage, and it didn’t take much more than Snoop & Dre’s “Gin and Juice” to get everyone jumping around a bunch. Between Optimus Prime and a short set from a short rapper (Despot), the crowd was ready and rearing to go.
Mr. Muthafuckin Exquire rolled out with a goofy smile to match his preppy shorts and beaded necklaces. His highly skilled flow and “fuck the world” attitude came across loud and clear, and he barely needed to ask before the beards started bouncing off the walls. He was smiling while he said it, but by the end of the set he gave verbal middle fingers to everybody and everything: labels, money, bitches, blogs, and especially Lebron James (this was Cleveland, after all) and the crowd ate it up.
Then Killer Mike took over the stage with a huge charisma that was only exceeded by his girth. Out of everyone on the bill, he was the most intense, looking the crowd dead in their eyes and demanding their participation in a set that ratcheted up the momentum with every song. His energy was more than matched by the particularly well-schooled fans up front (he called them “gangland”), and Mike had to take a moment to laugh it off after they surprised him, rapping enthusiastically along to every word of the a cappella section from “RAP Music.” Encouraged by gangland’s willingness to “wile out,” he invited everyone up onstage for his personalized version of “Never Scared,” the Bone Crusher track that in 2003 was most folks’ introduction to his unique voice. He followed that up with his 2011 stylin’ and profiin’ classic “Ric Flair,” then declared, “I’ve been waiting to say this shit since the fourth grade” before leading the crowd in chants of “Fuck Ronald Reagan.” Bringing his new best buddy El-P out for “Butane (Champion’s Anthem)” got everyone even more excited, so he wrapped the set the only way he could, inviting gangland to surround him once again for “Kryptonite,” the Big Boi weed anthem that once brought him his greatest fame.
El-P’s opening acts set an incredibly high standard for the night, but luckily Jamie Meline’s never been afraid of hard work. He was clearly really excited to be doing his new material, and aside from the encore, the setlist consisted of Cancer4Cure in its entirety. He was backed by a DJ and two additional musicians, one mainly playing percussion and guitars, the other responsible for recreating the synths that carpet the album’s soundscape. The crew was mostly successful, and tracks like “The Full Retard” and “Oh Hail No” (with assistance from Exquire) had the crowd jumping, slamming, and rapping along with appropriately shameless abandon.
On the other hand, the intricate mix of “Tougher Colder” (featuring Killer Mike and Despot) was pretty much destroyed by the volume, and the various MCs were put off their game as the rhythm drowned in the dirty sea of the Grog Shop’s grungy sound system (which, of course, had been turned up as loud as humanely possible). There was also the matter of Cancer4Cure’s second half. In the live setting, songs like “The Jig Is Up” and “For My Upstairs Neighbor” came off more like a series of hip-hop-accompanied monologues than club-ready rap music. During “Sign Here,” as El-P exhorted the audience, it was unclear if he was just playing the angry part of the song’s narrator or if he was actually dissatisfied with the crowd’s response.
In the end, though, El-P’s passion for his job and his sincere appreciation of his loyal fans carried the day. His followers were rewarded in the encore with an old Company Flow song (“Vital Nerve”) and the eternal, rap-along crowd-pleaser “Deep Space 9mm.” We’d waited all night to yell, “I’d rather be mouth-fucked by nazis unconscious” at the right moment, and the smile on El’s face made it worth the wait. Before the album-closer “$4 Vic/Nothing But You+Me (FTL),” he dedicated the show to his late friend Camu Tao, an Ohio native, asking everyone to raise a fist in solidarity. It may seem strange to say that a room full of rowdy, sweaty, hip-hop heads—who spent most of the night shouting variations on the phrase “fuck you and fuck you, too”—was full of love, but there we were, and it sure as hell was.